Columbia University history professor Adam Tooze has an excellent column up at Substack addressing China and COVID:
Amongst Xi’s regime’s proudest boasts is the fact that China has registered only slightly more than 5000 COVID deaths compared to more than 1 million suffered by the US. From 15 May 2020 to 15 February 2022, whilst many thousands around the world were dying from COVID every day, there were only two COVID-19 deaths in mainland China. Even allowing for propagandistic understatement of the Chinese numbers, Xi’s China has clearly been far more successful in protecting its population from the worst effects of virus than any country in the West. As a result, it cannot be stated too often, China’s life expectancy overtook that in the United States in 2021, a truly historic marker.
But now, only weeks after Xi’s triumphant party Congress, the zero covid policy is in crisis. The disease is spreading and China’s population is no longer willing to put up with it.
Desperate locked-in workers and indignant students have taken to the streets. Bottle-throwing residents have waged pitched battles with riot police. Chinese diaspora communities have braved the ominous presence of embassy security officials to stage protest meetings.
This is clearly a test of Xi’s authority, the most profound since he has taken power. One must profoundly admire the courage of the protestors and sympathize with the outrage and desperation triggered by successive waves of capricious lockdowns. In large parts of China, ordinary life has become hard to sustain. At the same time it is hard to resist Schadenfreude at the expense of Xi. Xi Jinping’s ‘myth of infallibility’ is being tested.
But as attractive as it may seem to side with the protests against Zero Covid this begs the question. What is the policy alternative? The fact that abandoning zero COVID would be a blow to Xi does not make that the right policy. The dilemma facing Beijing goes beyond the question of Xi’s legitimacy. As ludicrous as zero COVID has come to seem, as oppressive and capricious as its intrusions are in the everyday lives of Chinese people, it has saved huge numbers of lives. And if Beijing were to follow the demand to abandon the policy, this would likely result in a public health disaster not just for the CCP but for China.
Omicron is less dangerous than Delta but its infectiousness is extremely high. If the pandemic is allowed to run unchecked, hundreds of millions of people will become infected. Even with a low rate of severe cases, China’s medical system will be placed under impossible strain, not just in a handful of cities as in 2020, but across the country. Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, if not more, will likely die.
Tooze notes also that there may be a way out, if China is willing to do thus far it has resisted:
There is a way out of Beijing horrendous impasse: mass vaccination and an ample supply of anti virals to help patients fight the disease. But that begs the question.
China was the first country to vaccinate. It has vaccines which when used in a triple dose are highly effective against hospitalization and death. The lack of mRNA vaccines is not the issue. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of China’s huge population have completed the basic two-course regime. Where Beijing has failed is in rapidly delivering the third and fourth round of boosters and in ensuring that the most vulnerable population, those over 60, are properly covered. As of the latest figures cited by Bloomberg, “only 69% of those aged 60 and above and just 40% of over 80-year-olds have had booster shots.” That leaves tens of millions of elderly with no protection at all. They are the people who died in Hong Kong.
As far as I am aware there is no fully convincing explanation for this failure to provide comprehensive coverage particularly of the elderly.
There are a lot of good studies in the specialist literature in medical sociology and psychology that help to explain some of the vaccine resistance.
China became a victim of its own haste in rolling out vaccines on a rough and ready basis to those under the age of 60. This created the perception that the vaccines were not properly tested or safe for use amongst more fragile elderly people.
China has an unfortunate track record of vaccine scandals and the lack of good data on the safety and efficacy of China’s shots among the elderly in homegrown vaccine’s clinical trials does not build confidence.
Health workers have been cautious about recommending vaccines for those with high blood pressure or autoimmune disorders and given the negligible chance of COVID infection, there seemed little reason to take the risk. In most of China, COVID has never been more than a news report. Thanks to the success of the 2020 measures, many cities have never logged a single case and elderly people regard the threat as very remote.
The Chinese population and the regime also suffered from “other people’s problem”-syndrome. Not unreasonably they convinced themselves that COVID was an issue for the failed and degenerate West. Rather than joining a broad global front to endorse precautionary vaccination and boosting with whatever vaccinations were too hand, Beijing allowed the media to spread questions about the efficacy and safety of vaccines in general.
Vaccines are the way out. Vaccines have always been the way out since they were introduced. Not lockdowns. Not masks. Not testing. Vaccines.
And yet, in my cohort of over-60 friends and family, I am still the only one who has gotten the bivalent booster. Many of these people are not vaccine-resistant. I really don’t know what the explanation is for how many older Americans who know better are not keeping their vaccines up-to-date. It’s puzzling why the simple act of protecting oneself from illness and death is not a default behavior.